Lack of Economic Mobility Adds Urgency to The Pre-K Debates

Topic: Economics, Outcomes, Preschool, Targeted, Universal

Economic mobility is in the news of late thanks to Republican presidential hopefuls drawing attention to recent studies showing that Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. This comes as sobering news to many who persist in believing the U.S. is the land of utmost opportunity. Not so if you are at the bottom of the income scale, it turns out.

Brookings Institution research finds that 42 percent of children born in the bottom income quintile in the U.S. stay there as adults and only six percent of them reach the top quintile. Meanwhile, a policy brief just out from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project finds that in the U.S., there is a stronger link between parental education and children’s economic, educational and socio-emotional outcomes than in any of the other countries studied. In other words, who your parents are counts for more here than in other countries studied when it comes to moving up the ladder. Not surprisingly, another key finding is that exposure to preschool can have lasting positive effects on economic disparities, particularly for low- and middle-income children.

Coinciding with all this is the arrival of a new book The Pre-K Debates: Current Controversies and Issues. Edited by Edward Zigler and Walter Gilliam of Yale University and myself, it calls on more than three dozen leaders in the various fields associated with early education to argue the issues surrounding the hottest debates.  Chief among them — and first in line in the book — is the policy question of whether public preschool education should be made available to all children or only those who are economically disadvantaged.

I argue in favor of making public pre-K available to all children for four reasons:

  1. Universal preschool programs will reach a significantly greater percentage of low-income children than has been the case with targeted programs these last 40-plus years.
  2. Universal programs produce larger educational gains for disadvantaged kids.
  3. Children from middle-income families also benefit and, numerically speaking, they account for most of the nation’s problems with inadequate school readiness and school failure.
  4. Universal pre-K is likely to yield a larger net economic benefit to the nation.

David Lawrence Jr., president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Florida puts forth similar arguments for a universal approach, adding that outside the ivory tower or government no one thinks in terms of means testing and it is never a good strategy to divide Americans. Lawrence led the fight for Florida’s universal pre-K program and, while he calls it nowhere near good enough, those familiar with Lawrence know better than to doubt his dedication to program improvement.

Joining us on the pro-universal side of the debate are Sharon Lynn Kagan and Joyce Friedlander at Columbia University. They argue that all young children have a right to high-quality preschool education plus any additional health or social services needed to get children off to a good start in school. Their approach, termed “universal plus, ” represents a substantial shift in mindset away from the targeted services strategy that most state and federal programs have pursued in recent decades.  My co-editor Ed Zigler has made much the same case over the years in advocating for his School of the 21st Century.

The proponents of targeted services are predominantly economists like me. James J. Heckman, University of Chicago, proposes developing measures of risky family environments to facilitate targeting programs to the most disadvantaged kids. He recommends providing those families with home-visiting programs such as the Nurse-Family partnership as well as high-quality pre-K.

Art Rolnick at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Rob Grunewald, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis favor targeting because the highest returns on the public’s investment in pre-K come from programs for the disadvantaged. They acknowledge the substantial difficulties targeting has had in identifying and serving those who qualify and recommend redoubling those efforts by way of means testing.

Finally, sociologist Bruce Fuller of the University of California, Berkeley, cautions against pursuing a policy of universal preschool because it would, in his estimation, squander scarce public dollars and likely widen gaps in early learning because well-heeled communities would “top up” private investment in preschool with public funds and then recruit the most skilled teachers. Viewed through Fuller’s lens, universal pre-K would work to the disadvantage of disadvantaged kids.

Having studied pre-K in this country and abroad for the past 30 years, I have more than a little difficulty embracing the arguments of my colleagues on the anti-universal side of the debate.  None of the opponents has offered a practical solution to the targeting problem.  In Europe both average test scores and inequality in test scores decline as enrollment moves past our levels in the U.S. toward 100 percent.  In the U.S. we have pursued a targeted approach since the early 1960s and still don’t reach half the children in poverty with even modest programs.  And most private sector programs available to the beleaguered middle class fall far short of providing quality education, a problem that Quality Rating Systems will not fix.  Forty years of failure should be enough to convince my economist colleagues that something must be wrong with their assumptions. On purely practical grounds, I think it is about time we chart a new course.

In future posts, we’ll address other issues of contention from The Pre-K Debates.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER